The Rock of Cleveland - Remembering Rocky Colavito
Cleveland is proud to be home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But there is another Rock that is revered by many lifelong Cleveland Indians fans.
This Saturday, the Cleveland Indians will honor Rocky Colavito, on the date of his 80th birthday. This gesture is not only appropriate, but long overdue. (The IBI's Will Joyce considered Colavito his idol and wrote this insightful piece earlier this year.)
Rocco Domenico Colavito was born and raised in The Bronx, and lived about seven blocks from Yankee Stadium. His favorite baseball player was Joe DiMaggio. Growing up, Rocky patterned his swing and batting stance after DiMaggio. It is also no surprise that Rocky carried himself through life with the same classy manner as “Joltin’ Joe”.
I have talked with several baseball fans who shared wonderful memories of Rocky Colavito. Amazingly, those memories are ingrained in their minds to the point where they can quickly recall vivid details of Rocky, the major league baseball player, and the man. Here are some examples.
From the Steel Valley
Jim Sebastian grew up in Struthers, Ohio near the smokestacks of the steel mills. It was natural for Jim, along with his brothers and friends, to pledge their allegiance to the Yankees. This was based on their Italian heritage, since, in those days, the Yankees had a roster full of Italian-Americans. Once Rocky Colavito became the starting right fielder for the Cleveland Indians, their loyalties changed forever.
As a kid, Jim had a radio and a score card next to him the entire game to record the exploits of Rocky and the rest of his Tribe teammates. Jim can honestly say that he and his friends never missed a Tribe game when Rocky was on the team. They expected him to hit a home run every time he batted. When he didn’t, they always made excuses about how lucky the pitcher or fielder was to get him out.
What stood out the most for Jim was Rocky’s pre-swing approach at the plate. First, the famous “Colavito stretch”, where Rocky held the bat at both ends, lifted it over his head, then lowered it slowly behind his neck to the back of his shoulders. Then, stepping into the batter’s box, with a serious look on his face. Finally, pointing the bat directly at the pitcher sporting a long stare, to send a strong message that he meant business. Kind of a 60’s version of Jim Thome.
Rocky had an incredibly strong arm. Jim witnessed how strong it was and relishes in re-telling a story to prove this. Occasionally, prior to a game at Municipal Stadium, Rocky would stand at home plate and throw a baseball over the center field fence. That’s over 400 feet in the air. An amazing feat, and what a treat to witness it in person.
Colavito was not a speedster in the outfield, but he more than made up for it by his rocket arm and a little ingenuity. Rocky had a habit of pounding his glove prior to catching a fly ball. Occasionally, with an opposing runner on first base, and a line drive hit to Rocky in right field, he would pound the glove only to have the ball drop in front of him, then fire a bullet to second base to force out the confused runner.
Rocky was always a gentleman and carried himself with dignity and grace; except for one time when he noticed a drunken fan in the stands bothering his wife and his father. The Rock handled the situation by climbing into the stands and taking care of the bum. Rocky was ejected from the game, but in our eyes he was rightly defending his wife’s honor.
Off to Kansas City
After a few years with the Tigers, Rocky was traded to the Kansas City Athletics, where he played for one year: 1964.
Dave Pattison grew up in Kansas City and remembers that year vividly. Just like many Cleveland fans, Rocky became Dave’s favorite player.
Colavito had a great ’64 season for the Athletics, slugged 34 homers, and made the All-Star team.
Late in the season, Dave recalls that Rocky was nearing his 300th career home run. The owner of the A's, Charles O. Finley, said he would give Rocky 300 silver dollars when he hit his 300th home run. Charlie “O” had an armored car containing the 300 silver dollars drive around the warning track before every game announcing that the next home run would be Rocky's 300th and he would be given the 300 dollars. This put a lot of pressure on Rocky and it took him about two weeks to finish the task and collect those silver dollars.
Dave attended a lot of A's games in 1964. He especially enjoyed the double headers, which teams played frequently back then. On bat day there were probably 30,000 kids in attendance. To entertain the kids before the game, Colavito and teammate Jim Gentile played a game of "burnout." Gentile started out near home plate and Colavito started out down the right field line. Each player took turns throwing as hard as they could at the other player, as they moved closer and closer to each other. Finally, Gentile gave up when Colavito was about 60 feet away. It was fun to watch. The kids all cheered each throw.
Dave also recalls Rocky’s stretch to loosen his muscles, his unique batting stance, and pointing the bat. Dave commented that because Rocky was well respected, that no pitcher ever threw at him for that.
Rocky Colavito is well thought of by people who followed the A's back in 1964. Even though Rocky only played for the A’s for one year, he was then and still remains Dave’s favorite player - and probably the favorite player of 95% of the kids in Kansas City back then. Dave can still visualize The Rock at bat like it was yesterday. The image is burned into his memory.
The Return to Cleveland
Tony Cardarelli is a numbers guy and can recite an incredible amount of baseball records and statistics. He still pores through the box scores in the newspaper and longs for the days when baseball players were regular guys who could identify with regular people.
After stints with the Tigers and the A’s, Rocky rejoined the Tribe in 1965, in a trade that was costly, but thrilled the Indians’ fan base. On Opening Day, 44,335 fans welcomed back Colavito and he responded in dramatic fashion by blasting a home run to lead the Tribe to a 6-5 win over the Los Angeles Angels.
Tony reports that the Indians attendance in 1965 was 934,786 versus a paltry 653,293 in 1964. That’s an increase of 281,493 fans. While the 1965 Tribe did win eight more games than the year before, Tony concludes that the huge increase in attendance was completely due to Colavito’s return to the stadium on the lakefront.
Rocky enjoyed an All-Star season in 1965. He led the American League with 108 RBI. This stat alone would put him in contention for most valuable player. But in addition to being one of the game’s premier power hitters, Rocky was also an excellent defensive right fielder. For example, Tony notes that in 1965, Colavito played in all 162 games. And he did so by performing in right field about as perfectly as you can imagine, as he did not commit a single error for the entire year. In fact, Rocky’s stretch of errorless games extended to 212, a current Indians record that could soon be surpassed by Tribe left fielder Michael Brantley.
Many years after his playing career was over, the Columbus Clippers had Rocky on hand to greet the fans and sign autographs. The lines were very long and some fans waited two hours for their turn to talk with Rocky. Tony was one of them and he reports that even in the hot, humid summer weather, Rocky was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, with every strand of his thick, silver hair in place. He also took time to speak with each fan, most of whom had to relay their favorite stories about their favorite player.
An American Champion
For Parma native Jerry Schueller, Rocky was and always will be his favorite player. Jerry is also an amateur historian and when reminiscing about Colavito, he invokes the speech that General George Patton delivered to the U.S. Third Army troops prior to D-Day. Jerry cites that General Patton emphasized that "Americans will not tolerate a loser". In that same speech, Patton declared that as kids, we always “admired the champion ball player”. Well, Jerry was one of those kids, as Rocky was his childhood hero. To Jerry, Rocky Colavito was a clean-living, champion American ball player.
Rocky was voted as one of the top 100 all-time Cleveland Indians players, and also received the same honor for his years with the Detroit Tigers. In 1976, Rocky was voted the most memorable personality in Cleveland Indians' history.
Imagine the positive impact that the beloved Colavito had on these young men, who still admire The Rock nearly more than 50 years after he wore a baseball uniform. That says a lot about this man.
So to Rocky: Here is a heartfelt “Thank You”. Your exploits in major league baseball led young fans to try to duplicate your swing and your approach at the plate. But more importantly, you gave us a true role model to emulate and taught us to live with class and dignity. In our minds and hearts, you are The Rock Hall of Fame.
funny, i guess, but as a kid, every spare nickle went to buying baseball cards. i remember trading my mickey mantle cards for colavito cards. i still think it was a great trade, on my part.
kudos on another fine article.